Designing for Direct Mail

By Bob Baldridge December 10, 2020 direct mail

Direct mail — postcards, self-mailers, and even small packages for key demographics or top prospects — are a high-ROI channel for marketers who are looking to get their message out.

The best direct mail pieces cut through the clutter with relevant, personalized messaging and creativity, but they also need to be in compliance with postal recommendations. 

Designing with USPS standards in mind can save you a significant amount in postage. On the flip side, it can drive up your direct mail campaign costs if you don’t optimize for it, so it’s to your benefit to think about mailing best practices early on in the design process. These five tips will help you capture the recipient’s attention while cutting costs and staying compliant. 

Put White Space in the Right Place

First and foremost, you need to leave white space on your mail piece for the address, barcode, and for the postage in the upper right corner. Specifically, according to the USPS, the mailing address on mailers must begin in a rectangular region that’s 5/8” from the bottom of the piece and ends vertically 2 3/4” from the bottom of the piece. 

When it comes to delivery addresses, they can’t be closer than 1/2˝ from the left or right edge of the mailpiece. In addition, if your direct mail is a tri-fold piece, it must be addressed on its center panel in order to qualify for automation discounts. 

When designing the piece, you also have to leave room for the postal barcode, which will be applied by postal equipment at the bottom right corner of the address side of the mail piece — specifically 4-3/4” from the right edge of the piece and 5/8” from the bottom edge of the piece. Generally speaking, the USPS offers lower postage rates for barcoded bulk mail because the barcodes make it easier to sort the mail. 

Consider the Size

We all know that the size and weight of each piece being mailed determines the postage costs. A postcard costs less to mail than a catalog, and a large envelope will cost more than a small one. But did you know that it’s also highly recommended that all direct mail pieces be rectangular? Irregular shapes are more difficult for the USPS to sort and may necessitate a handling by a person rather than a machine, which means additional costs. 

Here are some other general size guidelines to consider. Postcards — the most inexpensive option — should be at least 3-½” high x 5” long x 0.007” thick. Keep that in mind, because if your postcard is larger than 6-1/8" x 11-1/2" x 1/4" thick, you'll have to pay flat (large envelope) postage prices.

As for letters, they need to be 3-1/2” to 6-1/8˝ high and 5˝ to 11-1/2˝ long and up to 1/4˝ thick. One tip from the USPS is that folded pieces, or folded self-mailers, “can save time and money because you're not paying for or stuffing envelopes. Folded self-mailers must be sealed or they will be subject to the nonmachinable surcharge.” 

Choose Fonts Strategically

When it comes to the design itself, you want to be creative so that it catches the attention of the recipient. But you also have to be strategic, especially when it comes to fonts. While you might think something looks flashy and unique, you have to make sure that it’s readable and clear. A good rule of thumb is to stick to no more than two different typefaces that can be easily scanned. 

To ensure that it’s easy to read, go for a sans serif font (like Ariel) in which each letter doesn’t have small accents at the end of each letter stroke (like Times New Roman). This creates a uniform, clean look that is easily comprehended as a reader flips through their mail. 

To add visual interest, play around with the size of the font, making sure the importance of each section is reflected in the weight and the size. For example, the headline should be front and center, and each subhead weighted accordingly. 

And what you say with those fonts is, of course, of the utmost importance — and the point of the mailing. Include a clear call to action (CTA) that motivates the reader to act, whether that’s calling a phone number, visiting your website, or clipping a coupon for later use.  

Use Variable Data to Personalize the Message

Variable data printing — or VDP — is a printing process that allows marketers to create customized messages for specific individuals on a large scale. Powered by software that can pull images, copy, or other components from a database, this information is then inserted into a direct mail design based on pre-set variables such as location, gender, or purchasing history. 

VDP allows for mass customization, which can have a great payoff in the end. Around 79% of consumers say they will engage with an offer only if it has been personalized to reflect previous interactions they have had with the brand, and when someone sees their name on a piece of mail, it can increase the response rate by as much as 135%. So instead of sending 10,000 generic postcards, using VDP can customize those postcards to give you a greater return on investment.

Build in Your Analytics

How will you know the ROI on your direct mail campaign? You’ve got to design with measurement in mind. Before you start dreaming up design concepts, choose the metrics you’ll measure and your tracking method. Based on that, you’ll know exactly which tracking components need to be included in your piece and you can make sure the right calls to action are front and center.

Why It Matters

Direct mail is an effective way to reach a large number of prospective customers in a relatively inexpensive way — when it’s done correctly. Whether you’re handling the design yourself or are working with a designer, take the time to ensure that your pieces are not only aesthetically pleasing and unique, but also within the confines of mailing requirements and compliance. It might take a little bit of extra forethought, but it will help move your mailings to the top of your recipients’ pile — and add to your bottom line.